Two of the main reasons we tell stories are to teach lessons and to discuss the human experience. These factors drive the plot of stories across all cultures, and can often be boiled down to a few major themes.
Understanding how to use themes in your manuscript will help you bring your writing and message to the next level.
What is a Theme?
A theme is a central topic of a work, whether it’s a novel, essay, or even a film. Themes can be broken down further into two categories. A thematic concept is what the reader thinks the manuscript is about. A thematic statement is what the work says about the subject.
How to Determine a Story’s Theme
Themes in literature drive the overall plot and include a message about the human condition.
Think of The Hunger Games. A theme of the entire series is survival; Katniss & co. continually struggle to find ways to survive a totalitarian government and war. Another theme in The Hunger Games are maintaining humanity during war. Katniss struggles to reconcile killing other children, teens, and civilians while working to free the population from the dictatorship of The Capitol.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is a classic British novel that takes place just after WWI. In the novel, multiple characters face both depression and suicidal thoughts/actions. An overarching theme in this novel is mental health, but it goes a step further and discusses mental health during and after wartime.
Common Themes in Literature
As humans, we share common struggles. The human experience is filled with similar conflicts, characters, and lessons learned. These ideas end up in stories in different societies around the world, regardless of time, history, or culture. Beyond common archetypal characters, there are common themes in literature.
Utilizing these themes can bring new meaning to your story. Be careful not to overload your story with too many themes, though, as it’ll confuse readers. You want your message to be clear.
Below is a list of common themes you can incorporate in your next project. Keep in mind that this list is not comprehensive and there are a vast number of other themes in literature.
|Beauty||Capitalism||Change of power|
|Change vs. tradition||Chaos & order||Character (personality)|
|The circle of life||Coming of age||Communication|
|Companionship||Convention||Dark vs. light|
|Death||Destruction (of __________)||Disillusionment|
|Fate vs. free will||(Fear of) failure||Good vs. evil|
|Greed as a downfall||Heartbreak||Heroism|
|Identity crisis||Illusion of power||Immortality|
|Individual vs. society||Inner & outer strength||Injustice|
|Isolation||Knowledge vs. ignorance||Loss of hope|
|Lost honor||Love||Man vs. nature|
|Nature||Oppression (of __________)||Optimism|
|The “self”||Self reliance||Social mobility|
|Will to survive||Wisdom||Youth|
Expanding Your Theme(s)
Having an overarching theme(s) is important, but you need to choose an aspect to focus on. Loss is a fantastic theme to include in your work, but what type of loss does your protagonist experience? Is it a loss of innocence? Of individualism? Of family? Of honor?
Once you choose a theme, pick a direction to take the theme and how it will drive the overall plot of your work.
Below are some expanded themes to consider:
|Beauty: the temporary nature of physical beauty||Change of power: the necessity of handing over power|
|Isolation: emotional alienation||Love: the sustaining power of love|
|Nature: man’s struggle with human nature||Power: how power corrupts|
Incorporating Theme Into Your Story
Once you choose a theme (or a few themes), it’s time to incorporate that theme into your story. As an editor, I see some novice writers trying to explicitly state the theme of their short story or novel in their writing. While this may seem like a good idea, it disrupts the natural flow of the manuscript.
Let’s use hope as an example. In this example story, a rose bush begins growing next to the window after a particularly tough time in the protagonist’s life. This is a popular way to symbolize hope or rebirth, but it’s crucial you don’t overstate the theme and disrupt your writing.
Bad example of incorporating theme: “It had been a rough winter and she was exhausted. She opened the window and noticed the rose bush was sporting new buds. She felt hopeful and reborn.”
Good example of incorporating theme: “She opened the window and breathed in the chilly air. After this winter’s events, the sweet smell of new rose buds awakened something inside her.”
Including your theme(s) in your manuscript is easy as long as you keep it in the back of your mind. Use symbols, dialogue, and action to communicate your overarching theme and message to your audience.